The Top Seven Most Bizarre Man-Made Disasters

June 4, 2010

We live in an age where we have become utterly dependent on technology in our day-to-day lives, and that situation isn't without certain drawbacks. In light of recent events along the Gulf Coast, man-made disasters have been getting a lot more face time as of late. It turns out that these kinds of blunders come in all shapes and sizes, and a handful of them are pretty damn weird.

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7. The Boston Molassacre

Back in the early 20th century, molasses was a substance in high demand. Used in a variety of applications ranging from soft drinks to ammunition, it was not uncommon for large quantities of the syrupy goo to be stored on-site at factories. 

On January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, a 50-foot tall, 90-foot wide molasses storage tank at the Purity Distilling Company facility ruptured, sending a of 2.3 million gallon 15-foot tidal wave of sticky hell through the streets of Boston with enough force to lift a nearby train right off the tracks.

When all was said and done, the molasses had claimed the lives of 21 people and injured another 150. It took 87,000 man hours to cleanup the whole mess. The exact cause of the rupture is still not known, but many believe the tank was overfilled in order to produce as much rum as possible before the oncoming Prohibition laws.


6. Gates of Hell

In the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan, there is a 328-foot wide hole in the ground which has been on fire, continuously, for nearly forty years. Disappointingly, it is not actually a portal to hell, but the result of some creative thinking on the part of some Russian oil rig engineers. None the less, it is known to the locals as "The Gates of Hell."

In 1971, a Soviet drilling rig accidentally drilled into a massive underground natural gas pocket, causing the ground to collapse and swallow the drilling rig whole. Having opened this huge poisonous gas cavern up, the atmosphere and the nearby residents in the village of Derweze decided the next logical move would be to set this huge crater on fire, and it has been burning ever since. The drilling rig and its crew were never heard from again.


5. The Goiânia Accident

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On September 13, 1987, Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira were scavenging in an abandoned hospital in central Brazil when they came across a strange device and decided to take it home to dismantle it. Having been born and raised in a rural community, neither of the men had any clue that the device was a caesium-137 based teletherapy unit, used in radiation therapy. Had they understood what it was, and what radiation poisoning was, they probably would not have spent the next several days dismantling the device, eventually retrieving the glowing radioactive core, and exposing themselves and everyone in their town to large amounts of radiation.

Since the radioactive material was used for a medical device, its radioactivity was not potent enough to be immediately lethal. As a result, the men spent the next several days showing their friends and family the blue glowing material, and on September 18, Roberto sold the material to a nearby scrapyard owner, who brought over friends and family to get a peek at the strange substance which he said he planned to make into a ring for his wife.

Fifteen days later, after many people had handled the material and spread radioactive dust across the neighborhood and surrounding towns, Gabriela Maria Ferreira, the would-be recipient of the nuke ring, noticed that many people around her were getting gravely ill, and thought it might have something to do with this strange glowing material. Accordingly, she put the material in a plastic bag and boarded a bus for a hospital in a nearby city, where a doctor there rightfully suspected that this material was in fact extremely dangerous. The following day, a visiting physician used a scintillation counter to detect that the material was radioactive, and cleanup efforts began shortly thereafter. The incident claimed the lives of four individuals, including Gabriela, and either sickened or maimed another 250 or so people.


4. The Centralia Underground Coal Fire


Centralia, Pennsylvania is a smoldering wasteland, and it will probably remain that way for at least the next several centuries. That's because a 1,200-degree coal fire has been burning underground there for more than forty years. It is suspected to be a blunder by the local fire department in 1962 which had been tasked with cleaning up the local landfill, which itself sat on top of an abandoned strip mine. To accomplish this, they set the landfill on fire, apparently not an unheard of method at the time. However, the theory goes that the fire was not put out properly, and heated up veins of coal underneath the landfill, which began to smolder over time.

Eventually the reaction lit an underground fire which continued to burn, which caused little concern from local authorities until almost two decades later when in 1981, a 12-year-old boy fell into a 150-foot sinkhole which suddenly opened up in the backyard underneath his feet.

Two years later, Congress allocated $42 million and relocated all the residents of Centralia elsewhere and basically wiped the town off the map, removing its zip code and condemning all the buildings within. The fire is expected to continue burning until roughly the year 2260.


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3. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Photo: Earthfirst

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest landfill known to man - at least twice the size of Texas by some estimates. It is an area in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California where multiple currents converge and create a vortex which collects garbage from all over the world, resulting in what some have referred to as a "plastic soup" of garbage in the middle of the ocean.

Over the decades the garbage patch has been developing, much of the debris has been broken down into smaller and smaller particles, comprised largely of various kinds of plastics, which is then mistaken for food by the marine life, which in turn contaminates the ecosystem all way up the food chain.

Since the area is so massive in scale (both in terms of width and depth underwater), many scientists believe it is nearly impossible to cleanup the contamination at sea, and that it would likely do even more damage to the surrounding sea life in the process. When people talk about our need to recycle plastics, this is why.

Despite those discouraging theories, groups like Project Kaisei are beginning to look into ways to begin to combat the massive issue.


2. The Bhopal Disaster

Photo: Wikipedia

The Bhopal Disaster, which took place at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India on December 2, 1984, is considered by many to be the worst industrial accident in history. Overnight during routine maintenance at Union Carbide chemical plant (which had an extensive history of previous accidents), water leaked into a tank containing 42 tons of methyl isocyanate, a chemical used in the production of carbaryl, a potent pesticide.

The reaction of the water and the chemicals inside the tank caused the internal temperature to rise, and in turn resulted in the tanks venting massive amounts of poisonous gas surrounding the unsuspecting population of Bhopal. Thousands of residents died almost immediately as a result of inhaling the gas, while many more were killed in the subsequent panic that broke out shortly after the incident.

It is estimated that a total of over 20,000 people eventually died as a result of exposure to the gas and another 100,000 to 200,000 people suffered long term injury. To this date, nobody from Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical) has been prosecuted in relation to the disaster, and toxic chemicals left in the plant when it was abandoned continue to leak into the groundwater in the region.


1. The Texas City Chain Reaction

Photo: Texas History

The Texas City Chain Reaction disaster is basically a worst-case-scenario come to life. On April 16, 1947, a fire broke out on the SS Grandcamp, a French vessel docked at the Port of Texas City. The ship contained a cache of small arms ammunition, but more importantly, it also contained a large amount of ammonium nitrate - the same stuff used in the Oklahoma City Bombing. To make matters worse, the High Flyer, another ship docked in the harbor about 600 feet away, also contained an additional 961 tons of ammonium nitrate and 3.6 million pounds of sulfur, all bound for Europe to be used in the production of fertilizer.

Around 8AM the morning of the incident, smoke could be seen coming from the cargo hold of the Grandcamp. By 9AM, witnesses reported seeing the water around the ship boiling, an indication that things might have been getting a little bit dodgy. At 9:12, the ship exploded, causing a shockwave felt by people up to 250 miles away and leveling over 1,000 buildings. It also killed the entire Texas City fire department.

As if that weren't bad enough, the explosion also ignited the adjacent High Flyer, which then exploded 15 hours later, causing even more destruction and setting many more fires, some of which occurred at oil and chemical plants nearby. With no surviving firefighters, the surrounding area was left to burn. The force of the explosion caused the two-ton anchor of the Grandcamp to be found 1.62 miles from the site of the detonation. The disaster killed at least 567 people and injured more than 5,000 more, though estimates vary because the scale of destruction at the site was so vast that many people could have literally been vaporized by the explosion. The disaster led to the first class-action lawsuit in American history, filed by the victims against the United States government.


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